It started with a request to make cushions. Becky Armstrong and her family were living in Madison when a neighbor asked the woman if she could sew some furniture cushions. Armstrong was surprised when the neighbor handed over money to pay for the project.
“The bulb just went off – maybe I could do this on the side and make some money this way,” Armstrong said.
Ten years later, she’s a full-time seamstress operating Tony Bud’s Sewing out of her Marshall home.
“To my surprise, there’s no one doing custom sewing in the area anymore,” Armstrong said. “It’s all custom made from the designing the sketch to completion.”
Her business is on the other spectrum of what Armstrong initially thought her future would go – she has a degree in forensic science and imagined she would work for a state crime laboratory. When that did not pan out, Armstrong took a position at Covance in Madison.
During the first couple years of marriage, her husband, Tim, injured his back and lost his job.
“Things got really tight,” Armstrong said.
Then the offer to create cushions for her neighbor sparked the decision to start making some money on the side using her sewing skills.
Armstrong has been sewing since she was 15 years old; her grandmother was a seamstress and the Marshall resident picked up a lot of skills from her. Armstrong said what she didn’t learn from her grandmother was self-taught.
“There were a lot of mistakes, a lot of reworking and calling my mom, who is also a sewer, at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning saying ‘I don’t understand this pattern; what am I doing wrong?’ And her walking me through it,” the seamstress said.
To begin, Armstrong set up as a vendor at area craft fairs, selling smaller crafts and occasionally would sew curtains for customers. She placed an ad on Craigslist to let people know Armstrong could also do custom sewing projects. The Marshall resident also joined the website Custom Made where people who sew could be connected with potential customers.
Then, a Michigan woman reached out to Armstrong and asked if she could make a custom ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’-themed wedding dress.
“I was thinking, ‘I’ve never done a wedding dress,’” Armstrong said, but she had recently created a medieval-style costume for another customer and decided to take on the challenge.
The wedding dress was a success; so much so that Armstrong was asked to make wedding attire for the groom and the couple’s four children.
“At that time I realized, maybe I could make this a go,” the seamstress said.
Since July 2013, Armstrong has made Tony Bud’s Sewing, named after her oldest son Anthony, and his nickname Bud, her full-time occupation. She noted there have been ups and downs but for the most part, the home-based business has been going well.
Since that first project, Armstrong and her 1972 six-stitch Kenmore sewing machine – which she found on Craigslist – have continued to create custom clothing, especially wedding dresses. The Marshall resident said while bridal shops may be able to make alterations to existing dresses, many are unable to create a custom gown. Many of her clients come to her after being unable to find the perfect dress for a special occasion.
“Everything I do, except costume replicas, are custom made,” Armstrong said. “I will never make the same dress twice; it’s your wedding dress and you want it to be one-of-a-kind.”
She will use similar patterns and styles, but the colors and fabric will be different so each gown is unique.
Cosplay is another huge part of her business with many people wanting replicas of their favorite characters’ signature outfits. Tony Bud’s Sewing has even been invited to be a vendor at multiple fan conventions all over the country.
“Most of the things I create (for cosplay) are things I have never heard of but I do the research to find out exactly who this character is,” Armstrong said.
While the seamstress does the sewing there are other people involved in getting Armstrong’s creations completed; her mother does all of the fine detailing like beading. Another woman fabricates customized brooches and creates pieces of armor.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” she said.
Armstrong has faced personal challenges since starting Tony Bud’s Sewing. Almost five years ago, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The seamstress will experience MS flare ups that negatively impacts her ability to sew.
“The diagnosis has changed my life,” Armstrong said. “It might take me longer than before to finish a dress, but I keep going.”